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How Tobacco Companies Led A Devastating 50-Year Infiltration Into Black Communities

A college student’s film project reveals the targeted effort to push menthols onto the black populace.

04/11/2016 12:43 pm ET
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    Taryn FinleyBlack Voices Associate Editor, The Huffington Post
DAMON SCHELEUR/GETTY IMAGES
Big tobacco companies exploited unique facets of black culture to push menthol cigarettes into black communities across the nation.

Lincoln Mondy’s asthma is probably the only reason why he’s never smoked a cigarette.

Doctors warned his parents about the dangerous effects their smoking habit could have on their son, but it was almost impossible to stop because in Farmersville, Texas, “tobacco is everything,” according to Mondy. At the age of 14, Mondy took matters into his own hands when he made a PowerPoint presentation for his mom, whom he lived with, which warned her about tobacco’s adverse effects. With the support of Mondy and other family members, his mother eventually quit smoking by the time he was 15. But getting his father to quit was a different beast to tackle.

My black family all smoked menthol,” Mondy, who is biracial, told The Huffington Post about a pattern he noticed on his paternal family’s side. “Like why do they smoke menthol but my white side dips and smokes cigarettes that aren’t menthol?”

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN TOBACCO CENTRAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL

Menthol is a flavoring additive that makes it easier to inhale smoke which makes it more addictive than non-menthol cigarettes, according to the Center for Disease Control. More than 70 percent of black smokers prefer menthol, as shown in the infographics (above and below) by the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council. After learning that black people are more likely to die from smoking-related diseases than whites, Mondy realized his father’s affinity for menthol wasn’t a coincidence.

The now 22-year-old senior at George Washington University, started to research the campaigns big tobacco companies used to target black communities for his film project,“Black Lives/Black Lungs.” The film was published in March in conjunction with Truth Initiative, and he found some very disturbing facts.

Check out “Black Lives/Black Lungs” in the video below and keep scrolling to continue the story.

Mondy searched for keywords within the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents databaselike “ethnic,” “ghetto,” “lower income” and “negro.” He found countless documents that outlined tobacco companies’ strategies in its campaigns which were aimed specifically at black people. He said the latter three search terms yielded results that surprised him, but it was a document from Lorlliard Tobacco that said “negroes” smoke menthol to “mask a real/mythical odor,” which he said disturbed him the most.

They started really seeing [that] saying menthols would make people think ‘fresh breath,’” Mondy said of his findings. “So in like the ‘60s they started targeting on that. They really started going really hard on ‘hey, smoke this, it’s healthier, fresh breath, minty,’ those kind of buzz words that would make people feel like its healthier than a regular cigarette.”

In addition to the language used in advertisements, these tobacco companies would buy a disproportionate amount of ad space in black publications like Ebony, Jet and Essence in comparison to mainstream magazines like Life, Vanity Fair and Elle. In 1962, Ebony carried twice as many cigarette ad pages as Life. These ads showed black men and women with cool and even empowering demeanors as they held a cigarette.

Many tobacco companies were ordered in 2014 by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler to run corrective statements in many publications about their overall misleading messages about the negative health effects of smoking in ads, but black media outlets were completely ignored.

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN TOBACCO CENTRAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL

Mondy also found that businessmen from tobaccos companies would take “ethnic field trips” to neighborhoods highly populated with black people in the ‘60s where they would stay for hours and give away menthol cigarettes. 

“You’re getting them hooked for free,” Mondy said of the these “disturbing” marketing tactics by the tobacco companies. “So they’d go and take really impressive research to kind of pinpoint the culture and see what people like, what people don’t like. And then, maybe like three months later, after that one ethnic field trip, there’d be an ad targeted specifically to that population.”

Phillip Gardiner, public health activist and co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, wrote in his 2002 study “The African Americanization of menthol cigarette use in the United States” — which Mondy refers to often in his research — that tobacco companies saw the distinct traits of the black community, philanthropy included, and adjusted their marketing accordingly to build the community’s trust:

“Because the industry was based in the South, and the majority of black people lived and worked in the South, even as many migrated to urban centers, it was to the advantage of the tobacco industry to develop a strategic relationship with the African-American community. Moreover, the tobacco industry was one of the first major corporate employers to hire and promote African-Americans, not just in the processing of tobacco but also as executives (Gardiner, 2001; Robinson & Sutton, 1994).”

Mondy called the tobacco industry’s infiltration into the black community “strategic.” Tobacco companies like Altria have donated millions of dollars to black institutions — including the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, historically black colleges and universities, and the NAACP — over the years. In 2014, Altria donated one million dollars to the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture which opens this year. Mondy said these institutions would risk vital funding which could ultimately help them to have a positive impact on the black community if they spoke up against the tobacco companies.

They have no choice,” he told HuffPost. “In the ‘70s when the NAACP needed funding for meetings, the tobacco industry was there, no one else was there. The tobacco industry was there to give money to them so they couldn’t say smoking is bad.”

Today, menthol is the only tobacco additive that is not banned, despite a 2009 law which banned other flavor additives like cherry and bubblegum. Yet, as shown in the graphic below, the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium found that if menthol was banned that 44.5 percent of black smokers would quit smoking tobacco.

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN TOBACCO CENTRAL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL

Mondy said he believes the reason it hasn’t been banned is due to political reasons — Lorillard, the company which produces Newports, has donated to more than half of the black democrats in Congress compared to just under 3 percent of non-black Democrats in 2014. 

In 2015, Lorillard, whose sales depended on menthols for roughly 85 percent of sales the year prior, merged with Reynolds American Inc. — the company that owns R.J, Reynolds Tobacco Company. Jacob McConnico, a spokesperson for the R.J, Reynolds Tobacco Company, provided a statement to HuffPost in regards to claims about marketing practices that specifically targeted the black community in the past few decades and today:

“I am not able to provide any insight to claims related to alleged marketing activities of up to 50 years ago. I can tell you, as it relates to our marketing today, our marketing efforts are designed to reach a wide and diverse audience of adult tobacco consumers. Those efforts are designed to include elements of interest for all adult smokers, regardless of their ethnicity or gender. Adult African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities have the same ability and right as the rest of the population to evaluate and make informed decisions about whether or not they want to use tobacco or any other consumer product. It would not be appropriate to exclude minority audiences or media from our brand communications.”

Steve Callahan, a representative for Altria Client Services, the company which owns Philip Morris USA brands such as Marlboro, Virginia Slims, among others, also said that he couldn’t speak on marketing campaigns from the past in a statement to HuffPost. He said there has been tighter regulation on tobacco companies due to the1998 Master Settlement Agreement which changed the way brands market tobacco and the 2009 Tobacco Control Act in which the Food and Drug Administration began regulating the manufacture, distribution and marketing of these products. 

Also, Callahan said to HuffPost that Philip Morris USA is “committed to marketing our products responsibly by building relationships between our brands and adult smokers while taking steps designed to limit reach to unintended audiences.” He added, “Philip Morris USA markets its menthol cigarette brands using the same marketing approaches it uses for its non-menthol cigarette brands.”

Advocates like Gardiner, however, aren’t convinced that tobacco companies shouldn’t be held accountable.

The bottom line is that African-Americans prefer menthol cigarettes because the tobacco industry pushed these products on and created the demand among this population,” Gardiner wrote in his study. “Did the industry do this on purpose? The answer to this question is an unequivocal yes.”

Despite tobacco’s deep impact on the black community, Mondy said he’s using his “Black Lives/Black Lungs” project as a vehicle of hope. With the help of Truth Initiative, he plans on interviewing key players in the fight to ban menthol and turn his findings into a documentary which he intends to premiere this summer. His efforts aren’t to shame smokers because quitting tobacco can be a hard feat, especially, if a person may have smoked his or her entire life. Instead, he said he wants to educate people on the issue.

AFRICAN AMERICAN TOBACCO CONTROL LEADERSHIP COUNCIL

Mondy’s approach to informing others has even made his father take quitting more seriously. He said his dad texted him in February to tell him that he had gone 30 days without smoking a cigarette, the longest in Mondy’s lifetime.

“This is like so engorged into our community,” he said. “I think it’s important to equip people with the education and information and so like, I’m not going around saying ‘smoking is bad, stop smoking.’”

Instead, Mondy said he hopes the research he provides will lead people to make an informed decision on whether they want to quit smoking or “keep buying from these companies that benefit from black death.”

Learn more about the tobacco industry’s targeted campaign on the black community with “Black Lives/Black Lungs” and watch the video above.

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Let me tell all you guys these cigarettes are going to send you to the grave. I quit after 50 years, been off them 2 years. Went to the doctor today, have to get a couple inhalers, have emphysema and right now pneumonia in one lung. If I'd have continued smoking, I wouldn't be here right now. I loved my Benson & Hedges @ $10.00 a pack. Cigarettes aren't good for your teeth either. They're really not good for anything, they're one 

I've told you about that Nuclear Machine they put your behind in to X-ray your whole body to determine if you have cancer and where it is. You keep smoking, you're going to DIE. There's no sugar coating the situation. You're going to die. When you realize how much trouble the smoke did to your body, it may be too late. Let me tell you, what a pain in the ass it is to climb stairs and be totally out of breath for five minutes as you roll on your bed waiting to breath normally again. I didn't lose a lung, didn't get cancer, but it waved at me. That Nuclear Machine's like laying in a coffin for 20 minutes, where you can't move anything, If you're claustrophobic, it's the last place you'll want to be. Way down the bottom of that sucker is the hole they slid you in; so you're not going to crawl out. Before they put you in that sucker, they shoot your body with dye so they can see what they see. There's cramps you get too, from smoking, in your legs, arms, sometimes and they hurt like the devil. I don't know what Menthol does, probably worsens a bad, bad situation.

If you love your family, if you love yourself, if you'd love to continue breathing with NO FANFARE, you'd better stop smoking with this reading. If you don't, what's in store for you is going to make you cry buckets, before, and definitely your family, after; then they're going to close the lid ON YOU. That's what THEY DON'T TELL YOU.

White folks make cazillians on our black behinds, all the while exuding hatred. We just smile and die with, by and for the European Ex-Cave man and his female.

Last edited by Norland

  Wow!  I used to smoke years ago.  I wasn't a heavy smoker.  Just a couple of three cigs a day.  A pack lasted me a week and a half.  Usually smoke with coffee and after meals.  One day, I was laying down trying to smoke and breathe at the same time.  It was then I said no more.  Stopped smoking right then...cold turkey.  Never looked back.  Thank you for sharing my sista.  That's deep.  I understand how hard quitting is.  It really is one day at a time.  So..please take care of yourself.  Cuz there is a void when you're not here.  Truly.  But!  

Thanks, Koco. It's not a void, I've just been around the block a couple times and know things are not what they seem, I think it's called "old age",  tis all. Sense comes to you when more of your life's behind you than in front of you. You damn near reach the age of GENIUS without even trying. It just OOps ya right upside da head.

 Cold turkey's the only way to go. That's how I quit too. When you think about it, smoke was never INTENDED to go into lungs. That's just common sense. I remember starting to smoke, laying on a couch for a few minutes to combat dizziness, mother was in the kitchen; she smoked too (non filtered Chesterfields) because that's what EVERYONE was doing. (That's why it's not cool to do what EVERYONE else is doing; it could be detriment to your health or life.)

Cigarettes were dancing in commercials on our 3 channel TV's, movie stars looked as though they had hidden smokestacks somewhere on their bodies. It's what people did. Look back, the people are DEAD. In the 50's and 60's cancer wasn't as prevalent a word as it is now. Cancer of the brain wasn't even heard of where I was. Cancer of everything's everywhere now.

You have people in jails for marijuana this and that; they want to bring medical marijuana into schools now. You know, where money's involved, folks would make gold penises, vaginas, anuses and lips and for one hundred bucks charge,  let people experiment free thrills on HBO, SHOWTIME or your local PORN station.

Snoop and Willie puff marijuana like it's going out of style, I like them both, but stare at the faces and they're not what they once used to be. Willie's 80, but he's prunish, but still hanging on, but fading; stubborn as a mule. Snoop's not as handsome as he once was but he's not yet older than dirt; whether he'll get there is questionable. He's like a cat with 9 lives.

Marijuana's smoke from  leaves just like cigarettes are with tobacco. Why would one leaf be better than the other to put in your lungs?????? Smoking's smoking. We all need something to calm our nerves from the every day bullshit we all go through. Find something else to solve your problems, rather than something that's REALLY GOING TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS THROUGH DEATH. That's all I'm saying. Smoking will kill you; it's giving me a gigantic wake-up call. Thankfully, I'm still waking up, as I'm typing this at 4:00 a.m. 

The age I'm presently experiencing, hit my ass like a ton of bricks. I still can't imagine being here in what seems so short a time. I NEVER experienced any kind of crap such as this. I was foot loose and fancy free. Hair was reddish brown (no longer), loving music, dancing, enjoying Bacardi's and cigarettes. YEP!!! Didn't have to worry about getting shot dead, walking to your car for the ride home. The damper was put on that for my dumb ass when a cop just happen to ride behind me, but that's been discussed elsewhere. (Drunk School was no joke; luckily no accidents or death; heaps of embarrassment, another story).

Seems just like a couple hours ago, this age jazz and razzmatazz, I was in my 20, 30, 40's; raising kids, crazy and happy at the same damn time. Turned around 3 times, and BAM, I'm here. I'll tell you where, when I can type the number without crying and sighing and looking like . The same thing's going to happen to YOU. Oh, yes it is!!!! And it's going to shock you shitless. Guaranteed!!!!!

White man will be whistling to the bank on your body in the grave, like they've been doing all along. That's what's in store for every one of us messing with those cigarettes, no matter the name, past, present and future. Truthfully, be careful what you mess with, period. When it gets down to it, it's you and it and hopefully, not the graveyard in your NEAR future nor mine!!!!!! 

On to my zigzaw puzzles. Good Morning to you all.  for now.

Last edited by Norland

Sista Norland wrote:  Thanks, Koco. It's not a void, 

 Oh no.  My sista what I meant by saying "void" is... .when you're not on the board doing your wonderful spin/outlook on life?  You are missed!  Without your opinions[and wisdom] deciphering this crazy world...there is a deep void on this board.  Your intellect tells me you've been around the corner. Hey...that's a good thing cuz here lately ...there are many of us who never got a chance to turn a corner in life, so to have all members here sharing their experiences and insights about being black in America...to me?  Is simply beautiful.  It's like coming to the dinner table discussing the events of the day.   And your input makes you a valuable member.  As a matter of fact,  it's priceless and rare to have such a venue/opportunity to express openly things that matter.  Cuz even with high technology, black people communicate less and less about what really matters-until something happens.  Here?  We're able to gain all kinds of perspectives.  Honest.  Perspectives.  Sometimes in unison...sometimes not.  Which again...is uniquely rare to have in this day and age.        

 Cold turkey's the only way to go. That's how I quit too. When you think about it, smoke was never INTENDED to go into lungs. That's just common sense. I remember starting to smoke, laying on a couch for a few minutes to combat dizziness, mother was in the kitchen; she smoked too (non filtered Chesterfields) because that's what EVERYONE was doing. (That's why it's not cool to do what EVERYONE else is doing; it could be detriment to your health or life.)

The history of smoking is yet another testimony of massa stealing someone's tradition and made it his own while making billions on it.  Smoking tobacco in rituals never led to cancer when the Amerindians introduced it to the Europeans.  There were different levels of smoking...depended upon what type of ceremony it was[or tribe].  Amerindians used tobacco, marijuana, mushrooms, and other herbal concoctions in their spiritual customs.  Especially customs that negotiated peace and trade.  

Marijuana's smoke from  leaves just like cigarettes are with tobacco. Why would one leaf be better than the other to put in your lungs?????? Smoking's smoking.

Here's some of the facts of what occurred  my sista.  Massa realized [by his dealings with Amerindians] that "smoking" was not only an enjoyable activity, it appeared to have medicinal properties....since the Amerindians at the time were healthy.  Plus smoking  symbolized three important factors derived from the proud Amerindian:  Masculinity, power and well-being.  And ....at the time, the bubonic plague was still lingering in France...so initally the French's discovery of tobacco would be used  to combat the plague[believing it would in fact cure the disease].  So smoking tobacco itself wasn't the primary use for massa.  Eventually, smoking became an hit among the elites and massa knew he could make money off this new trend but it had one problem.  It wasn't addicting.  Cuz first time users would choke at the new experience and wouldn't tried it again.  So massa had to come up with something.  Bingo bango!  Nicotine!  Created by a Frenchmen named  Nicot...who brought the seeds to  France for medicinal purposes and also used to put on crops as a form of pesticide.  

Longstory short.  Mammals begin to die from eating the crops but adding nicotine to cigarettes created the addiction in human massa was seeking. If he didn't care about slaves back then, you know he didn't care about animals  So nothing was ever said during those days about how the same ingredient used to kill bugs that will kill animals is the same ingredient going into humans.  So not only did massa used nicotine to hook smokers and potential smokers, he knew absolutely a long time ago how deadly this chemical was and still used marketing propaganda to further influence its use ....and it worked.  He used sex, cars, imagery-the whole nine yards to promote a poison and never thought twice about what harm it would cause a nation and the world.  

We all need something to calm our nerves from the every day bullshit we all go through. Find something else to solve your problems, rather than something that's REALLY GOING TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS THROUGH DEATH. That's all I'm saying. Smoking will kill you; it's giving me a gigantic wake-up call. Thankfully, I'm still waking up, as I'm typing this at 4:00 a.m. 

I understand.  And what you say is sooooooo true.  Marijuana doesn't do that to you although in college health classes they are trying to promote to students that smoking marijuana is as physically fatal as smoking cigarettes and this  is clearly NOT true.  But massa as always is trying to throw shade and control.  Cuz with marijuana you can take a leaf  and put it in the dirt and grow it.  Massa can't control that as why he put that nonsense about marijuana in health books cuz he wants to restrict its use.  

The age I'm presently experiencing, hit my ass like a ton of bricks. I still can't imagine being here in what seems so short a time. I NEVER experienced any kind of crap such as this. I was foot loose and fancy free. Hair was reddish brown (no longer), loving music, dancing, enjoying Bacardi's and cigarettes. YEP!!! Didn't have to worry about getting shot dead, walking to your car for the ride home. The damper was put on that for my dumb ass when a cop just happen to ride behind me, but that's been discussed elsewhere. (Drunk School was no joke; luckily no accidents or death; heaps of embarrassment, another story).

Seems just like a couple hours ago, this age jazz and razzmatazz, I was in my 20, 30, 40's; raising kids, crazy and happy at the same damn time. Turned around 3 times, and BAM, I'm here. I'll tell you where, when I can type the number without crying and sighing and looking like . The same thing's going to happen to YOU. Oh, yes it is!!!! And it's going to shock you shitless. Guaranteed!!!!!

I hear ya my sista!

White man will be whistling to the bank on your body in the grave, like they've been doing all along. That's what's in store for every one of us messing with those cigarettes, no matter the name, past, present and future. Truthfully, be careful what you mess with, period. When it gets down to it, it's you and it and hopefully, not the graveyard in your NEAR future nor mine!!!!!! 

I agree.  Cuz I think like just smoking cigarettes...diabetes is a disease that massa forced down our throats too...simply by the foods we were forced to eat and it became a staple in our culture and now it's killin us.  Cigarettes are deadly co-killers.  Massa put more nicotine in cigarettes he knows black people smoke...like Kools, Newport, and now I see black people buying single cigarettes...never heard of that before.  So they don't know WHAT they are smoking and how much nicotine and carcinogens they put in that mysterious cig.    If I had a choice cuz as you say we all need something to calm us down....I rather see folks smoke weed than cigarettes any day.  It's healthier.  And in states were marijuana is legal...it is a better transition from smoking cigarettes...AND drinking alcohol.  Both have deadly outcomes.  As why I believe massa didn't get the memo from Amerindians about how to smoke tobacco...cuz it is a REASON why they smoked it pure in pipes...and NOT smoke it every day.  It is a REASON...why they just dried the leaves...crushed it and put  it straight in those pipes.  But see massa is all consumption...he wants it all..no matter what it takes or who it hurts.  That's just the selfish self serving monster he really is.  But!  

Last edited by Kocolicious

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